Imagine that the world's people sucked water out of the Great Lakes as fast as they are currently depleting global groundwater supplies. What would those mighty inland seas look like by the end of the century?

That question, posed by an audience survey at a recent The TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy symposium called Connecting the Dots: The Water, Food, Energy and Climate Nexus, brought out the pessimist in many respondents. More than 75 percent of those who participated in the multiple-choice text message survey at the event said the Great Lakes would go completely dry. "What a bunch of pessimists," Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment Co-Director Jeff Koseff said to the hundreds of Stanford faculty, staff and students as well as local residents in attendance. "Well done."

Jeff Koseff and Buzz Thompson Connecting the Dots April 16, 2012 from Cyperus on Vimeo.

The survey, administered with a dose of humor by Koseff and fellow Co-Director Buzz Thompson, was meant to focus attendees on how much - or how little, in most cases - they knew about freshwater use around the world and in California. The April 16 event was a chance to learn from Stanford experts from a range of disciplines about sustainable freshwater resources issues in Africa, Asia, and the arid West. Drawing on their own research, the speakers discussed the interconnections and interactions among humanity's needs for and use of water, food, energy, and environment. In many cases, they illustrated and evaluated ways in which decisions in one resource area can lead to trade-offs or co-benefits in others.

Take, for example, the connections among irrigation, education and population. During the symposium's first panel discussion - "Africa: Water, Nutrition, Health, and Poverty" - Rosamond Naylor, a Stanford Woods Institute senior fellow and director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment, explained. Improved irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa means girls spend less time hauling water and more time in school, Naylor said. Better-educated girls, in turn, grow up to have fewer children as women, stabilizing the population.

Population pressures are central to freshwater issues in the American West too. During a panel discussion entitled "Water in the West: Groundwater, Energy, Ecosystems, and Infrastructure," Stanford Woods Institute Co-Director Buzz Thompson told the story of Happy, Texas. Nicknamed "The Town Without a Frown" for its status as a rich water source during the days of cattle drives, Happy's heavy water use for cattle and farming eventually dried up the area's aquifer and led to an economic bust.

Now, only about 500 people live in Happy and only one business - a bank - populates the main street. "Today, the town without a frown is not very happy," Thompson said. "(Water) depletion is not a sustainable future." State and federal government can help towns like Happy by setting standards for local water districts, Thompson said. If that doesn't work, state or federal regulators should step in, Thompson said.

From the West, the conversation moved to the Far East. During a panel discussion on the intersection of China's water, food, climate and policy issues, Jie Wang of Stanford's Civil and Environmental Engineering department described the Chinese government's five-year, $300 billion-dollar plan to build and manage water infrastructure. Regardless of what the plan achieves, the panel's participants agreed, China's freshwater challenges - like the world's - are massive. Ensuring access to energy while minimizing impacts to climate, water and food supplies will be a "daunting challenge," said Stanford Woods Institute Fellow Noah Diffenbaugh. As Stanford Woods Institute Fellow David Lobell said of the country's need to transition from water-intensive technologies: "There are no small problems in China."

Rob Jordan is the communications writer for the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Credit: Amy Pickering